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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
October 21, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Why Study Philosophy?

One might distinguish two reasons for studying philosophy or any other subject. First, and most importantly, you may study something because it intrigues or interests you. This is probably the best reason for studying anything. In the case of philosophy, studying it formally or informally is for you if you are curious or passionate about questions like:

  • "What is right and wrong?"
  • " Why is the Mona Lisa a great work of art?"
  • "Is religion superstition?"
  • "How can we distinguish between science and pseudo-science?"
  • "Is abortion wrong?"
  • "What can we know?"
  • "In what sense is 'virtual reality' real?"
  • "Is morality possible if there is no God?"
  • "What ultimately exists?"
  • "Is the human mind just a sophisticated computer?"
  • "How should we treat animals?"
  • "What obligations do we have to the poor?"
  • "Is time travel possible?"
  • "Are men and women different in ways that go beyond their sexual and reproductive goals?"
  • "What is the right way to reason?"
  • "Does European civilization think too highly of itself?"

If these kinds of questions capture your imagination, then you should find some time for philosophy. Not everybody is suited to an in depth study of the discipline, but everybody lives a life that depends on beliefs that philosophy explores, so most lives can be deepened and enriched by some study of philosophy.

A second reason for studying something is the possibility that it will provide a basis for future employment or a career. Such concerns are legitimate and important, but it might easily be argued that they are over emphasized in today's education. If you ask sixty year olds what they studied when they were twenty, you will usually find that the specific job skills they learned then have little to do with their present occupation (go ahead and try it!).

There are lots of reasons for this: people's interests change; career advancement often means that someone's job changes along with the skills that it requires; individual initiatives and opportunities often take people in unexpected directions; and job skills frequently change as technology and the world changes (a forty year old today didn't learn multi- media or how to use the web twenty years ago).

Looked at from this point of view, philosophy is an excellent preparation for almost any career. It does not teach job related skills (at least not directly) but it is one of the most effective -- perhaps the most effective -- discipline for teaching basic reasoning, writing and thinking skills which are of use in any occupation. By also teaching students how to think about "the big picture" and how to think of rationality and morality, it can provide an excellent basis for a career.

The key point to note about philosophy is its emphasis on active thinking. Unlike programs which emphasize the memorization and regurgitation of a body of facts, philosophy encourages the cultivation of analysis, criticism and communication. The benefits and skills acquired by analyzing philosophical texts and writing about them include the ability to:

  • Comprehend complex passages
  • Assimilate and understand the ideas of others
  • Develop an ability to research a topic
  • Criticize the propositions in other people's arguments
  • Learn to assert your own ideas
  • Be creative and novel in solving problems
  • Communicate ideas clearly
  • Construct rational and persuasive arguments
  • Work around a deadline
  • Work under pressure
  • Formulate articulate, well-constructed essays and presentations
  • Learn about and appreciate other disciplines (psychology, sociology, communication studies, english, history, anthropology, etc.)

By learning to effectively comprehend, analyze and criticize texts, and creatively form solutions or answers to problems, the philosophy student is forced to adapt to new situations, try different approaches, and adopt a variety of perspectives. Because philosophy questions all assumptions, philosophy students learn to probe issues more deeply than students in many other disciplines.

An added benefit of philosophy is an introduction to the intellectual currents and trends that inform the society in which we live. Reading Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes or contemporary feminists is not relevant only because they have important ideas you need to think about. It is also important because their ideas have had a profound impact on how we as a society think of -- and raise questions about -- the good life, morality, politics, science, truth and so on. If you are comfortable with philosophy, you will be comfortable with the "big questions" that an informed understanding ourselves and the way we live depends on.